Where did the Mystery of the Assumption come from?

Someone asked where in scripture or elsewhere do you find the story of the Assumption of Mary I related in my blog for her feast.

The account of the death of Mary isn’t found in scripture, but in the apocryphal body of literature called the Transitus Mariae, originating in the Christian churches of the east from the 5th century. These imaginative accounts describe the return of the apostles to Jerusalem for her burial and their discovery that her body was taken up to heaven. The accounts may contain material from earlier sources.

The accounts are not the basis of our belief in the Assumption of Mary and they’re not historical writings as we understand history today, but they do witness to belief in the Assumption in some parts of the early church.

In its liturgy for the feast, the Roman church doesn’t emphasize the apocryphal sources, but rather looks to scriptural sources like I Corinthians–the second reading for August 15th–to understand Mary’s Assumption.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes about the year 56 AD to Christians who are wavering in their faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Their precise difficulty seems to be that they saw only the soul surviving death and not the body, a common conception fostered by the Greek mind-set of his day. With that belief came a low appreciation of creation. The created world wasn’t worth much and was passing away. Let it go.

Paul counters that wavering belief with the faith he has received. Interestingly, it’s a faith preached, not written down. The gospels and other New Testament writings were not in written form yet.

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” ( 1 Corinthians 15, 3-6)

Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, Paul affirms, and we will rise bodily too. Jesus is “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

The church sees Mary’s Assumption as an affirmation of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Because of her unique role in the drama of redemption, Mary is among the“first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” She affirms that we follow in the steps of Jesus who rose body and soul. Her Assumption, body and soul into heaven, is a resurrection story.

Bodily life here is important, the bodily resurrection of Jesus says. We must live in the created world, accepting it, loving it, caring for it according to God’s plan. However difficult it may be, we have a body from birth to death; it’s the seed planted in the earth that will develop in a risen life we cannot imagine. ( John 12,21-26)

In her prayer, the Magnificat– the gospel for her feast– Mary accepts her mission from God to live in the world of her day, accepting its limitations, its misunderstandings, its lack of appreciation, its sufferings. She accepts fully the mission to follow her Son, the Word made flesh.

We know the realization of the mystery of the Assumption grew gradually in the church. Christians of the 3rd and 4th centuries confronted Gnosticim, which placed before them a temptation to depreciate creation and human existence similar to what the Christians of Corinth faced. Gnosticism promised a higher life beyond the limitations of this life. It offered an escape from life as it is. Human life and creation itself didn’t matter.

The Roman Catholic church defined the dogma of the Assumption November 1, 1959, on the Feast of All Saints. It was a century when human life counted for little and the planet itself was in danger. World War I ended in 1918 after four years of bloody conflict when millions perished. World War II ended in 1945. Conventual war and later nuclear weapons brought the real threat of mass destruction to the human race. Millions of lives were taken in the Holocaust.

As we enter the 21st century, the threats to human life and creation continue. Wars and now terrorism are with us. Besides these threats, our planet faces new dangers from climate change and widespread poverty.

The Assumption of Mary is a sign from God. Far from being a pious legend, it tells us to look seriously at the sacredness of human life and creation. We believe in the resurrection of the body according to our ancient creed. God commands us to honor and preserve the human body and all creation for its final destiny, a share in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Where did the Mystery of the Assumption come from?

  1. June rock

    If you should honor the body,how does cremation do that??

  2. Joseph Siemion

    Sometimes I struggle with the Marian dogmas, but overall I find them beautiful and inspiring.

  3. Gloria

    Re: June R’s question about where Mary died. Over the years I have read several articles in Catholic publications that were on scriptural archeology, which point to Ephesus where John the Apostle, acting on the words of Jesus to John as he was dying on the cross, “Son, behold your Mother,” took Mary into his home and cared for her until she died there.

  4. vhoagland

    Good question, June. Jewish tradition wrestled with that question and Christians too preferred entombment, not cremation, which seemed to attack belief in the resurrection of the body. Only recently has cremation been seen as an option for burial in the Catholic tradition. Our prayers say “life is changed, not ended,” which seems to indicate a new body, free from the imperfections of this one. Yet there will be a continuity with this bodily existence. Wish I could see more…but not yet.
    FV

  5. Anne Immaculate Oundo

    About the assumption of Mary, one has to have faith inorder to understand. As for me I believe.

  6. Gloria

    No matter what state the physical body is in after death, I believe that God, the Almighty, the All-Powerful, the All in all, can renew it. I am most concerned that my soul/spirit/”who I am”, will live with God eternally; and I
    believe that I will.

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